So an immediate disclaimer: the Mississippi Delta is not a foreign country. I picked “Big Girls, Global Kitchens” from our rubric of categories because it most closely fit the post that follows. I modeled it after my report on Morocco, which is indeed on the other side of the globe. Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee do feel like they are too at times, but if you’re from those places, don’t worry: I know the USA when I see it.
At the end of October, I spent a weekend in the Mississippi Delta visiting my sister, Kate
, who’s a teacher for Teach for America in Lake Village, Arkansas. Very early Friday morning, Alex and I boarded a flight for Memphis, and we arrived just in time to find Beale Street, home of jazz music and outdoor drunkenness, totally silent. So much for seeing Memphis.
What we did get to witness, as we drove south on Highway 61, was much of the length of the Mississippi Delta region. From Tunica’s plentiful casinos (with Paula Deen’s plentiful buffets–advertised on the side of the road in slogans like, “Get Your Ya’ll On,” which made us laugh) to the empty storefronts in the town of Alligator, by about noon, we had started to get the feel for the region. We stopped for lunch at Airport Grocery in Cleveland, a massive place filled with Americana and barbecue smoke. Under strict orders from Kate, who’d spent her summer training in Cleveland, I ordered the crawfish po’ boy and the fried pickles. Alex had his first taste of real BBQ, a pork sandwich. The po’ boy was a white hoagie stuffed with tiny fried crawfish tails and finished with mayo, lettuce, and tomato. Unfortunately we were too hungry to take pictures, but we did get a photo of the outside of the place from its parking lot.
The first night, we ate blackened catfish and hush puppies in Arkansas, at the foot of the bridge that crosses the Mississippi. Yum. I asked where to buy catfish to cook at home, and Kate told me you didn’t have to buy it. It was so plentiful, neighbors who went fishing often gave it away. On the way to dinner, we stopped at a tiny general store at an RV park, where I bought fresh-from-the tree pecans to bring home.
The next day, we went to see Lake Village’s sites. We tried to find alligators at the pumping plant, and we checked out the cypress trees that grow out of Lake Chicot. Best of all, we went to Rhoda’s.
Rhoda’s Hot Tamales has been around since the forties, I think. It’s a small place, and though there are fish sandwiches and chicken tenders on the menu, we went for the tamales. I remain a bit confused as to why tamales are a Delta food, and from my research, it seems I’m not alone. Some people guess that soldiers may have brought them back after the US-Mexico war, but no one seems sure. Nonetheless, believe me that there were tamales at stands and on menus everywhere we went.
The tamales are a mix of beef, pork, cornmeal, and spices, rolled up in corn husks and steamed. I haven’t had that many tamales in my life, but the ones I’ve seen usually have a cornmeal outer layer and then a filling. These were mixed all together, and the texture was somewhere in between a corn muffin and a hamburger. Unwrapping tamales is a slightly greasy affair, and they taste meaty, spicy, and rich.
Rhoda also makes pies, but she didn’t have any at the store that day. Kate had discovered that she’d be selling them out of her van, which she’d parked at Paul Michael, a furniture store that’s one of Lake Village’s main attractions. So we drove there. We found Rhoda’s minivan covered in pans of pie and trays of cupcakes, and we chose a couple miniature versions for $1 each. I got pecan and Kate grabbed a half-and-half: sweet potato and pecan.
We ate them without forks as we drove north to Grady, Arkansas, to go pumpkin picking. Miraculously, the pecan pie was not cloyingly sweet, just rich and nutty and molasses-y. I was so sorry I had only gotten one.
At the pumpkin patch, we burned off calories wheezing on the hay ride and choosing the perfect pumpkin to bring back to New York.
(Going home, the agent at security who scanned my bag asked, “Is that a melon?” I explained that it was a pumpkin. She seemed no less puzzled.)
That night, we drove to Greenville, Mississippi in search of Doe’s Eat Place. We’d heard a lot about Doe’s even in the day and half we’d been in the Delta. It’s a casual restaurant–you enter through the kitchen, sit on vinyl-covered tables, and eat on linoleum floors beneath flickering florescent lights.
We sat to the right of the French fry station and ordered steaks (almost) all around. Kate and I split a medium-rare porterhouse, Alex got a filet mignon, and the rest of Kate’s friends chose ribeyes, t-bones, and spaghetti. They were massive and delicious, and perfectly cooked.
The French fries, which I couldn’t get enough of, were thick and crispy. From our table, we could watch as four cooks double fried each batch. The salads were drenched in oil by a lady in big skirts who stood just behind the frying station and tossed tomatoes with vats of iceberg lettuce. Complimentary with the check came chocolate-coated Blue Bell ice cream bars.
Last but not least, I got my hands dirty in Kate’s lovely kitchen. I brought her a polka dot apron as a gift for hosting us, and I put it on to make blueberry corn muffins and bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches for brunch.
We cracked two dozen eggs to beat and scramble.
And we baked the bacon for better efficiency, and–accidentally–to flavor the corn muffins, which baked at the same time.
At the airport in Memphis, Alex and I split pork and brisket sandwiches at Neely’s. The spicy, tangy barbecue sauce was just barely sweet, and the meat on the sandwiches was tender and delicious. Stuffed, we boarded the plane to La Guardia back to the land of Northern food.
From my kitchen, in search of pecan pie and hot tamales, to yours,
Cara, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK